That, in the opinion of this House, the government should fully implement the recommendations of the 51st Report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in the First Session of the 36th Parliament, entitled “The Business of Supply: Completing the Circle of Control”.
Mr. Speaker, I will talk about something that is near and dear to my heart this morning, which is making sure that parliament actually performs the work that it is supposed to do. I refer to the report on “The Business of Supply: Completing the Circle of Control”.
The report was prepared during the 35th parliament and has had a rather slow gestation period since then. The report was co-authored by myself and the chief government whip, the hon. member for Ottawa West--Nepean. Another major contributor to the report was the Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific, the hon. member for Winnipeg North--St. Paul. The Bloc Quebecois and the NDP also made representations. The Tories were not a party in that 35th parliament so they were not actually at the table. The report enjoyed all party support. It was later tabled at a procedure and house affairs committee and subsequently tabled in the House after receiving the unanimous support of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I would like to comment on a couple of points from the report itself. In the introduction it talks about the need for the report:
The established procedures for handling supply in the House of Commons are based on two fundamental principles. If it is to continue with its activities, Government must have some assurance that its requests for funds be answered by certain fixed dates.
Nobody is debating that, and the government ensures that it has its money when it wants it and that it has it in bulk.
The other point is that parliament, on the other hand, must be assured reasonable opportunity to examine the requests before they are granted.
The report also talks about the need for parliament to hold government accountable. This ranks among the principal roles that parliament is expected to perform in our democratic system.
That leads to the motion to adopt the report. Some 51 different recommendations contained in the report would ensure that parliament does exercise its effective control and supervision over the estimates before they are approved and the government gets the money it wants.
Unfortunately, over the last many years, we have allowed parliament's authority to be eroded. We have allowed our authority over the public purse to be transferred to the government, and this Chamber unfortunately becomes little more than a debating Chamber and a rubber stamp on the $170 billion that the government now spends each and every year.
Let me quote from the auditor general just last week before the public accounts committee. She said:
I am concerned that Parliament has only limited means of holding the government to account.
Our current auditor general is very concerned. Her predecessor is also on the record as having said, in his December 2000 report:
It is discouraging to see new incidents of waste and mismanagement crop up hydra-like after older ones have been discovered and dispatched.
He also said:
All government spending should have Parliament's sanction.
Obviously it does not at this point in time.
He also said:
The principle that Parliament is the custodian of the public purse has been part of Canada's constitutional landscape since the country's inception.
All these issues are being eroded.
In 1977 the auditor general of that time, Mr. J.J. MacDonell, warned “Parliament is losing control of the public purse”.
Parliament should never lose control of the public purse. That is why we are here. The institution of parliament is to ensure that we as parliamentarians, the elected representatives of the people, hold the government to account on how it spends $170 billion each and every year.
That is an awful lot of money and an awful lot of taxes. Canadians deserve to know that someone is watching them and watching them closely to ensure value for money.
Everyday we hear of situations where money is wasted and spent needlessly. Money is spent even without parliamentary approval. The $1.3 billion heating rebate to Canadians was spent by the government immediately prior to an election. It spent the money without parliament's approval. It came to parliament after the fact and sought our approval once the cheques had been issued. That cannot occur.
As members know, I published a waste report that highlighted some stupid and incompetent ways in which the government spends money through grants and contributions. I remember $15,000 being given to someone who was hanging dead animals in trees in Manitoba. How can we tolerate that type of thing? Yet it goes on.
Therefore, this institution has a responsibility to ensure that if these things are not eliminated that they are at least kept to a minimum.
I will provide a short history lesson. Prior to the days of the Magna Carta, the monarch was completely and totally an autocratic dictator. If he wanted to lop someone's head off, the person's head was lopped off. People said that could not be done unless they were consulted first, and from the Magna Carta, which consisted of the aristocracy in Britain and England, said that the people had to be consulted first, developed the House of Commons, which is where we are today, and the Magna Carta stated that government cannot act without the authority of this place.
The monarch had the privy council, which consisted of his advisors. The monarch got smart one day and decided that if he picked an advisor from within the House of Commons, someone with stature, then perhaps the advice would be listened to by the commoners in the House of Commons. Lo and behold, that evolved and now we have the Prime Minister and the cabinet sitting in the front row. Therefore, the monarch by proxy has crept right back into this place and is controlling the House.
Unfortunately the backbenchers on that side of the House think of themselves as being part of government and the members on this side think of themselves as wanting to become government one day. We forget that the role of this institution on both sides is to hold the government accountable. That has been failing for years and is now, in my opinion, in a pretty sad state of affairs.
What are we talking about in the business of supply? First , as I said, there was $170 billion of spending but, unbeknownst to the vast majority of Canadians, the House of Commons only votes on about $50 billion worth of expenditures. The rest, $120 billion, is spent without any reference to this place. People may ask how that can be. It is because of the way we pass legislation. It is usually included in a clause that grants a new program money forever and ever. It never comes back to this place for a vote, for approval, for debate or for discussion.
I am saying that the statutory spending, where the authority is included in legislation, shall be subject to a program review. Once every five to ten years it should be subject to appropriate evaluation asking four simple questions. First, do we still want this program to continue and, if so, what is the public policy that this program is designed to address in society? If it is not addressing any problem in society one may ask why we even have the program.
First, let us articulate the public policy the program is designed to address. Once we know that, we can ask the second question. How well is it addressing the problem it is designed to address? If it has shortcomings or failures we fix them.
We then ask the third question. Is it doing this efficiently? In this complex and changing world,we also ask the question: Can the same results be achieved in a different or better way?
If those four simple questions were applied to all programs it would save enormous amounts of money because it would ensure accountability, drive up efficiency and drive up focus in ensuring that the programs delivered to Canadians were what Canadians actually wanted. There are $120 billion worth of expenditures and we could literally save billions.
We are also talking about tax expenditures. In 1992, for example, the auditor general cited as an estimate that in 1985 tax expenditures amounted to $28 billion annually.
What is a tax expenditure? A tax expenditure is a deduction on our income tax returns, for example, for those who contribute to an RRSP. It never shows up as revenue to the Government of Canada. It does not show up as an expense on behalf of the Government of Canada. It is just a deduction on the income tax return. Therefore, we feel that we should evaluate the value of these tax expenditures to ensure that they are worthwhile. Are they just freebies given by the government to get more votes? There can be some confusion there. I am concerned only with ensuring that a tax expenditure provides value for money, and through a registered retirement deduction we of course want people to save for their retirement. We want to give people an incentive to save for their retirement. Therefore we give them a tax deduction, but let us analyze it to see that the benefits equal the returns.
We also talk about loan guarantees. Loan guarantees show up in the public estimates as one single solitary dollar behind which may be a contingent liability for hundreds of millions of dollars. We will never know until the loan or guarantee goes sour and the government comes back to parliament and asks for hundreds of millions of dollars. By then it is too late. The ship has sunk and the money is gone. We need to evaluate these loan guarantees at the time they are being given to see if they are prudent and wise and are part of enhancing this country's prosperity. If so, no problem, but we need to have the right in the House to examine loan guarantees.
We also talk about net versus gross expenditure. Now that the government is into a significant amount of cost recovery and it only shows the net, parliament needs to have the whole story presented to it where we can see the gross expenditures, net recovery and how much the government is paying. Again, the auditor general stated in his October 2000 report, at page 17-15, that the result of net versus gross expenditure is misleading financial disclosure.
Then we have crown corporations, again something that is never subject to scrutiny by this place. In 1999-2000 crown corporations cost us almost $4 billion, yet that is never debated in this place. Many of these crown corporations are not even required to report to this place. I think it is time that crown corporations are subject to the scrutiny of parliament like everything else.
In addition to non-statutory spending, which we in the House somewhat review although that could certainly be improved, we are talking about statutory spending, crown corporations, tax expenditures and loan guarantees. Those are five areas that the House needs to be involved with and to scrutinize and check before granting approval and before the granting of supply for the government. We are not saying to cut it off. We are just saying to let us ask the appropriate questions of accountability, and if we are satisfied that the spending is legitimate and will benefit Canadians, then I am quite sure the House would not deny it. However, at this point in time the review is either perfunctory or non-existent. That has to change.
That is why the motion calls for the adoption of a new committee called the estimates committee, which would mirror the public accounts committee. The public accounts committee is a retrospective examination of problems, mismanagement and so on. We want an estimates committee that would look forward in analyzing and helping other committees do their job, to build the expertise and the knowledge, to hold the government accountable by asking the appropriate questions, by bringing in the appropriate deputy ministers and ministers and asking where they will be spending the money and whether it is appropriate.
This could be done by developing the issue of program evaluation. The president of the treasury board took a small step down that road when she introduced a new audit and evaluation policy last year. I would encourage her to think about moving that agenda even further and faster because it would ensure that Canadians get value for their money.
I could speak at length, but the notion we have to bring back to parliament is that the authority it has allowed to slip away must be recognized and it must be returned. How else will we ensure that Canadians right across the land get value for their money? The notion of accountability is fundamental to efficiency, honesty, integrity and everything else that is good in the world. When people are not accountable they run off the rails. Anything can happen. We see dictators around the world who have no accountability. They have slaughter, bankruptcy, fraud and corruption; they have everything.
What prevents these things from happening is having a government that is accountable, that has to live by the rule of law and not by whim. It is then that we get good government, and I want good government for Canadians.
I started by saying that the co-authors of the report were the chief government whip, the secretary of state and other members of the House and myself. I was not chairman of the public accounts committee at that time but I have been for the last few years. The report then came through the procedure and House affairs committee where it enjoyed all party support. There was unanimous support, Mr. Speaker. Therefore I would ask, because I am sure you will find it, that you seek unanimous consent to approve the motion.